|Rock and roll|
|Stylistic origins||Blues • Gospel • Folk music • Country music • Jump blues • Chicago blues • Swing music • Boogie-woogie • R&B • Doo Wop|
|Cultural origins||1940s, United States|
|Typical instruments||Electric guitar, string bass or later bass guitar, drums, piano, saxophone (occasionally)|
|Mainstream popularity||One of the best selling music forms since the 1950s|
|Derivative forms||Rock • Rockabilly • Pop|
|Rock and Roll Hall of Fame|
Rock and roll (often written as rock & roll or rock 'n' roll) is a genre of popular music that originated and evolved in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s, primarily from a combination of the blues, country music and gospel music. Though elements of rock and roll can be heard in country records of the 1930s, and in blues records from the 1920s, rock and roll did not acquire its name until the 1950s. An early form of rock and roll was rockabilly, which combined country and jazz with influences from traditional Appalachian folk music and gospel.
The term "rock and roll" now has at least two different meanings, both in common usage. The American Heritage Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary both define rock and roll as synonymous with rock music. Allwords.com, however, refers specifically to the music of the 1950s. For the purpose of differentiation, this article uses the latter definition, while the broader musical genre is discussed in the rock music article.
In the earliest rock and roll styles of the late 1940s and early 1950s, either the piano or saxophone was often the lead instrument, but these were generally replaced or supplemented by guitar in the middle to late 1950s. The beat is essentially a boogie woogie blues rhythm with an accentuated backbeat, the latter almost always provided by a snare drum. Classic rock and roll is usually played with one or two electric guitars (one lead, one rhythm), a string bass or (after the mid-1950s) an electric bass guitar, and a drum kit.
Rock and roll began achieving wide popularity in the 1960s. The massive popularity and eventual worldwide view of rock and roll gave it a widespread social impact. Bobby Gillespie writes that "When Chuck Berry sang "Hail, hail, rock and roll, deliver me from the days of old", that's exactly what the music was doing. Chuck Berry started the global psychic jailbreak that is rock'n'roll."
Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll, as seen in movies and on television, influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. It went on to spawn various sub-genres, often without the initially characteristic backbeat, that are now more commonly called simply "rock music" or "rock".
The origins of rock and roll have been fiercely debated by commentators and historians of music. There is general agreement that it arose in the southern United States of America - the region which would produce most of the major early rock and roll acts - through the meeting of the different musical traditions which had developed from transatlantic African slavery and largely European immigration in that region. The migration of many freed slaves and their descendants to major urban centers like Memphis and north to New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo meant that black and white residents were living in close proximity in larger numbers than ever before, and as a result heard each other's music and even began to emulate each other's fashions. Radio stations that made white and black forms of music available to other groups, the development and spread of the gramophone record, and musical styles such as jazz and swing which were taken up by both black and white musicians, aided this process of "cultural collision".
The immediate roots of rock and roll lay in the so-called "race music" and hillbilly music (later called rhythm and blues and country and western) of the 1940s and 1950s. Particularly significant influences were jazz, blues, boogie woogie, country, folk and gospel music. Commentators differ in their views of which of these forms were most important and the degree to which the new music was a re-branding of African American rhythm and blues for a white market, or a new hybrid of black and white forms.
In the 1930s jazz, and particularly swing, both in urban based dance bands and blues-influenced country swing, was among the first music to present African American sounds for a predominately white audience. The 1940s saw the increased use of blaring horns (including saxophones), shouted lyrics and boogie woogie beats in jazz based music. During and immediately after World War II, with shortages of fuel and limitations on audiences and available personnel, large jazz bands were less economical and tended to be replaced by smaller combos, using guitars, bass and drums. In the same period, particularly on the West Coast and in the Midwest, the development of jump blues, with its guitar riffs, prominent beats and shouted lyrics, prefigured many later developments. Similarly, country boogie and Chicago electric blues supplied many of the elements that would be seen as characteristic of rock and roll.
Rock and roll arrived at time of considerable technological change, soon after the development of the electric guitar, amplifier and microphone, and the 45 rpm record. There were also changes in the record industry, with the rise of independent labels like Atlantic, Sun and Chess servicing niche audiences and a similar rise of radio stations that played their music. It was the realization that relatively affluent white teenagers were listening to this music that led to the development of what was to be defined as rock and roll as a distinct genre.
In 1951, Cleveland, Ohio disc jockey Alan Freed began broadcasting rhythm, blues, and country music for a multi-racial audience. Freed is credited with first using the phrase "rock and roll" to describe the music he aired; its use is also credited to Freed's sponsor, record store owner Leo Mintz, who encouraged Freed to play the music on the radio. The phrase had been used in the lyrics of rhythm and blues records since at least the late 1930s, such as in Bob Robinson's "Rock and Rolling" (1939), Buddy Jones's "Rock and Rolling Mamma" (1939) and Joe Turner's "Cherry Red" (1939). Three different songs with the title "Rock and Roll" were recorded in the late 1940s; by Paul Bascomb in 1947, Wild Bill Moore in 1948, and by Doles Dickens in 1949. One such record where the phrase was repeated throughout the song was "Rock and Roll Blues", recorded in 1949 by Erline "Rock and Roll" Harris.
Before then, the word "rock" had a long history in the English language as a metaphor for "to shake up, to disturb or to incite". "Rocking" was a term used by black gospel singers in the American South to mean something akin to spiritual rapture. In 1916, the term "rocking and rolling" was used with a religious connotation, on the phonograph record "The Camp Meeting Jubilee" by an unnamed male "quartette". In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded "Rock It for Me", which included the lyric, "It's true that once upon a time The opera was the thing, But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme, So won't you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll". The verb "roll" was a medieval metaphor which meant "having sex". Writers for hundreds of years have used the phrases "They had a roll in the hay" or "I rolled her in the clover". The phrase "rocking and rolling" was secular black slang for dancing or sex by the early twentieth century, appearing on record for the first time in 1922 on Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll", and as a double entendre, ostensibly referring to dancing, but with the subtextual meaning of sex, as in Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" (1948).
The terms were often used together ("rocking and rolling") to describe the motion of a ship at sea, for example as used in 1934 by the Boswell Sisters in their song "Rock and Roll", which was featured in the 1934 film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, and in Buddy Jones' "Rockin' Rollin' Mama" (1939). Country singer Tommy Scott was referring to the motion of a railroad train in the 1951 "Rockin and Rollin'". An alternative claim is that the origins of "rocking and rolling" can be traced back to steel driving men working on the railroads in the Reconstruction South. These men would sing hammer songs to keep the pace of their hammer swings. At the end of each line in a song, the men would swing their hammers down to drill a hole into the rock. The shakers — the men who held the steel spikes that the hammer men drilled — would "rock" the spike back and forth to clear rock or "roll", twisting the spike to improve the "bite" of the drill.
There is much debate as to what should be considered the first rock & roll record. Big Joe Turner was one of many forerunners and his 1939 recording, "Roll 'Em Pete", is close to '50s rock and roll. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also recording shouting, stomping music in the 1930s and 1940s that in some ways contained major elements of mid-1950s rock and roll. She scored hits on the pop charts as far back as 1938 with her gospel songs, such as "This Train" and "Rock Me", and in the 1940s with "Strange Things Happenin' Every Day", "Up Above My Head", and "Down by the Riverside". Other significant records of the 1940s and early 1950s included Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" (1947), Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" (1947), Amos Milburn's "Chicken Shack Boogie" (1947), Jimmy Preston's "Rock the Joint" (1947), Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" (1949), and Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon" (1951).
A leading contender as the first fully formed rock and roll recording is "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (which was, in fact, Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm recording under a different name), recorded by Sam Phillips for Sun Records in 1951. Three years later the first rock and roll song to enter Billboard magazine's main sales and airplay charts was Bill Haley's "Crazy Man, Crazy" and the first to top the charts, in July 1955, was his "Rock Around the Clock" (recorded in 1954), opening the door worldwide for this new wave of popular culture. Rolling Stone magazine argued in 2004 that "That's All Right (Mama)" (1954), Elvis Presley's first single for Sun Records in Memphis, was the first rock and roll record, but, at the same time, Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll", later covered by Haley, was already at the top of the Billboard R&B charts.
Early rock and roll used the twelve-bar blues chord progression and shared with boogie woogie the four beats (usually broken down into eight eighth-notes/quavers) to a bar. Rock and roll however has a greater emphasis on the backbeat than boogie woogie. Bo Diddley's 1955 hit "Bo Diddley", with its b-side "I'm A Man", introduced a new beat and unique guitar style that inspired many artists without either side using the 12 bar pattern - they instead played variations on a single chord each.
Also formative in the sound of rock and roll were Little Richard and Chuck Berry. From the early 1950s, Little Richard combined gospel with New Orleans R&B, heavy backbeat, pounding piano and wailing vocals. His music, exemplified by songs such as "Tutti Frutti" (1955), "Long Tall Sally" (1956) and "Good Golly, Miss Molly" (1958), influenced generations of rhythm and blues, rock and soul music artists. Chuck Berry, with "Maybellene" (1955), "Roll over Beethoven" (1956), "Rock and Roll Music" (1957) and "Johnny B. Goode" (1958), refined and developed the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, focusing on teen life and introducing guitar intros and lead breaks that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.
Soon rock and roll was the major force in American record sales and crooners such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, and Patti Page, who had dominated the previous decade of popular music, found their access to the pop charts significantly curtailed.
"Rockabilly" usually (but not exclusively) refers to the type of rock and roll music which was played and recorded in the mid 1950s by white singers such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who drew mainly on the country roots of the music. Many other popular rock and roll singers of the time, such as Fats Domino and Little Richard, came out of the black rhythm and blues tradition, making the music attractive to white audiences, and are not usually classed as "rockabilly".
In July 1954, Elvis Presley recorded the regional hit "That's All Right (Mama)" at Sam Phillips' Sun Studio in Memphis. Two months earlier in May 1954, Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around the Clock". Although only a minor hit when first released, when used in the opening sequence of the movie Blackboard Jungle, a year later, it really set the rock and roll boom in motion. The song became one of the biggest hits in history, and frenzied teens flocked to see Haley and the Comets perform it, causing riots in some cities. "Rock Around the Clock" was a breakthrough for both the group and for all of rock and roll music. If everything that came before laid the groundwork, "Clock" introduced the music to a global audience.
In 1956 the arrival of rockabilly was underlined by the success of songs like "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash, "Blue Suede Shoes" by Perkins and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Presley. For a few years it became the most commercially successful form of rock and roll. Later rockabilly acts, particularly performing songwriters like Buddy Holly, would be a major influence on British Invasion acts and particularly on the song writing of the Beatles and through them on the nature of later rock music.
Doo wop was one of the most popular forms of 1950s rock and roll, with an emphasis on multi-part vocal harmonies and meaningless backing lyrics (from which the genre later gained its name), which were usually supported with light instrumentation. Its origins were in African American vocal groups of the 1930s and 40s, like the Inkspots and the Mills Brothers, who had enjoyed considerable commercial success with arrangements based around close harmonies. They were followed by 1940s R&B vocal acts like The Orioles, The Ravens and The Clovers, who injected a strong element of traditional gospel and, increasingly, the energy of Jump blues. By 1954, as rock and roll was beginning to emerge, a number of similar acts began to cross over from the R&B charts to mainstream success, often with added honking brass and saxophone, with The Crows, The Penguins, The El Dorados and The Turbans all scoring major hits. Despite the subsequent explosion in records from doo wop acts in the later 50s, many failed to chart or were one-hit wonders. Exceptions included The Platters, with songs including "The Great Pretender" (1955) and The Coasters with humorous songs like "Yakety Yak" (1958), both of which ranked among the most successful rock and roll acts of the era. Towards the end of the decade there were increasing numbers of white, particularly Italian American, singers taking up Doo Wop, creating all-white groups like The Mystics and Dion and the Belmonts and racially integrated groups like The Dell Vikings and The Impalas. Doo wop would be a major influence on vocal surf music, soul and early Merseybeat, including the Beatles.
Many of the earliest white rock and roll hits were covers or partial re-writes of earlier rhythm and blues or blues songs. Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, R&B music had been gaining a stronger beat and a wilder style, with artists such as Fats Domino and Johnny Otis speeding up the tempos and increasing the backbeat to great popularity on the juke joint circuit. Before the efforts of Freed and others, black music was taboo on many white-owned radio outlets, but artists and producers quickly recognized the potential of rock and roll. Most of Presley's early hits were covers, like "That's All Right" (a countrified arrangement of a blues number), its flip side "Blue Moon of Kentucky", "Baby, Let's Play House", "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Hound Dog".
Covers were customary in the music industry at the time; it was made particularly easy by the compulsory license provision of United States copyright law (still in effect). One of the first successful rock and roll covers was Wynonie Harris's transformation of Roy Brown's "Good Rocking Tonight" from a jump blues to a showy rocker and the Louis Prima rocker "Oh Babe" in 1950, as well as Amos Milburn's cover of what may have been the first white rock and roll record, Hardrock Gunter's "Birmingham Bounce" in 1949. The most notable trend, however, was white pop covers of black R&B numbers. The more familiar sound of these covers may have been more palatable to white audiences, there may have been an element of prejudice, but labels aimed at the white market also had much better distribution networks and were generally much more profitable. Famously, Pat Boone recorded sanitized versions of Little Richard songs. Later, as those songs became popular, the original artists' recordings received radio play as well.
The cover versions were not necessarily straightforward imitations. For example, Bill Haley's incompletely bowdlerized cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" transformed Big Joe Turner's humorous and racy tale of adult love into an energetic teen dance number, while Georgia Gibbs replaced Etta James's tough, sarcastic vocal in "Roll With Me, Henry" (covered as "Dance With Me, Henry") with a perkier vocal more appropriate for an audience unfamiliar with the song to which James's song was an answer, Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie". Elvis' rock and roll version of "Hound Dog" was very different from the blues shouter that Big Mama Thornton had recorded.
Commentators have traditionally perceived a decline of rock and roll in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1959, the death of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens in a plane crash, the departure of Elvis for the army, the retirement of Little Richard to become a preacher, prosecutions of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and the breaking of the payola scandal (which implicated major figures, including Alan Freed, in bribery and corruption in promoting individual acts or songs), gave a sense that the initial rock and roll era had come to an end. There was also a process that has been described as the "feminisation" of rock and roll, with the charts beginning to be dominated by love ballads, often aimed at a female audience, and the rise of girl groups like The Shirelles and The Crystals. Some historians of music have pointed to important and innovative developments that built on rock and roll in this period, including multitrack recording, developed by Les Paul, the electronic treatment of sound by such innovators as Joe Meek, and the Wall of Sound productions of Phil Spector, continued desegregation of the charts, the rise of surf music, garage rock and the Twist dance craze.
In the 1950s, Britain was well placed to receive American rock and roll music and culture. It shared a common language, had been exposed to American culture through the stationing of troops in the country, and shared many social developments, including the emergence of distinct youth sub-cultures, which in Britain included the Teddy Boys. Trad Jazz became popular, and many of its musicians were influenced by related American styles, including boogie woogie and the blues. The skiffle craze, led by Lonnie Donegan, utilised amateurish versions of American folk songs and encouraged many of the subsequent generation of rock and roll, folk, R&B and beat musicians to start performing. At the same time British audiences were beginning to encounter American rock and roll, initially through films including Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rock Around the Clock (1955). Both films contained the Bill Haley & His Comets hit "Rock Around the Clock", which first entered the British charts in early 1955 - four months before it reached the US pop charts - topped the British charts later that year and again in 1956, and helped identify rock and roll with teenage delinquency. American rock and roll acts such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Buddy Holly thereafter became major forces in the British charts.
The initial response of the British music industry was to attempt to produce copies of American records, recorded with session musicians and often fronted by teen idols. More grassroots British rock and rollers soon began to appear, including Wee Willie Harris and Tommy Steele. During this period American Rock and Roll remained dominant, however, in 1958 Britain produced its first "authentic" rock and roll song and star, when Cliff Richard reached number 2 in the charts with "Move It". At the same time, TV shows such as Six-Five Special and Oh Boy! promoted the careers of British rock and rollers like Marty Wilde and Adam Faith. Cliff Richard and his backing band The Shadows, were the most successful home grown rock and roll based acts of the era. Other leading acts included Billy Fury, Joe Brown, and Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, whose 1960 hit song "Shakin' All Over" became a rock and roll standard.
As interest in rock and roll was beginning to subside in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was taken up by groups in major British urban centres like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. About the same time, a British blues scene developed, initially led by purist blues followers such as Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies who were directly inspired by American musicians such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Many groups moved towards the beat music of rock and roll and rhythm and blues from skiffle, like the Quarrymen who became The Beatles, producing a form of rock and roll revivalism that carried them and many other groups to national success from about 1963 and to international success from 1964, known in America as the British Invasion. Groups that followed the Beatles included the beat-influenced Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman's Hermits and the Dave Clark Five, and the more blues-influenced The Animals, The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. As the blues became an increasingly significant influence, leading to the creation of the blues-rock of groups like The Moody Blues, Small Faces, The Move, Traffic and Cream, and developing into rock music, the influence of early rock and roll began to subside.
The social effects of rock and roll were worldwide and massive. Far beyond simply a musical style, rock and roll influenced lifestyles, fashion, attitudes, and language. In addition, rock and roll may have helped the cause of the civil rights movement because both African American teens and white American teens enjoyed the music. It also gave rise to many other styles, including psychedelic rock, progressive rock, glam rock, alternative rock, punk and heavy metal.
Many early rock and roll songs all dealt with issues of cars, school, dating, and clothing. The rock and roll songs described events and conflicts that most listeners could relate to from some point in their lives. Topics that had never been covered in music, such as sex, began to be introduced in rock and roll music. This new music tried to break boundaries and express the real emotions that people were feeling, but didn’t talk about. An awakening in the young American culture began to take place.
Rock and roll appeared at a time when racial tensions in the United States were entering a new phase, with the beginnings of the civil rights movement for desegregation, leading to the Supreme Court ruling that abolished the policy of "separate but equal" in 1954, but leaving a policy which would be extremely difficult to enforce in parts of the United States. The combination of elements of white and black music in rock and roll, inevitably provoked strong reactions within the US, with many condemning its breaking down of barriers based on colour.
On the other side of the argument, rock and roll has been seen as both white performers appropriating African American music, and as black performers reaching a white audience. Many observers saw rock and roll as heralding the way for desegregation, in creating a new form of music that encouraged racial cooperation and shared experience.
Rock and roll is often identified with the emergence of teen culture among the first baby boomer generation, who had both greater relative affluence, leisure and who adopted rock and roll as part of a distinct sub-culture. This involved not just music, absorbed via radio, record buying, jukeboxes and T.V. programmes like American Bandstand, but it also extended to film, clothes, hair, cars and motorbikes, and distinctive language. The contrast between parental and youth culture exemplified by rock and roll was a recurring source of concern for older generations, who worried about juvenile delinquency and social rebellion, particularly as to a large extent rock and roll culture was shared by different racial and social groups. In Britain, where post-war prosperity was more limited, rock and roll culture became attached pre-existing to the Teddy Boy movement, largely working class in origins, and eventually to the longer lasting rockers. Rock and roll has been seen as reorientating popular music towards a teen market, often celebrating teen fashions, as in Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956), or Dion and the Belmonts "Teenager in Love" (1960).
From its early-1950s inception through the early 1960s, rock and roll music spawned new dance crazes. Teenagers found the irregular rhythm of the backbeat especially suited to reviving the jitterbug dancing of the big-band era. "Sock hops," gym dances, and home basement dance parties became the rage, and American teens watched Dick Clark's American Bandstand to keep up on the latest dance and fashion styles. From the mid-1960s on, as "rock and roll" yielded gradually to "rock," later dance genres followed, starting with the twist, and leading up to funk, disco, house and techno.